Focus on South Africa

Providing comprehensive coverage of South Africa’s best wines this winter was an adventure due to the instability of this category in the U.S. market over the past year. Wines of South Africa (WOSA), the industry association that represents exporters of South African wine, has sharply cut back its activities in the U.S. market in the past year, pressured by a handful of its largest members, who decided in late 2007 that they were not getting traction in the U.S. market and that they could more efficiently spend their marketing budgets elsewhere, such as in the U.K. and Germany. Their timing for such a decision could hardly have been worse, as macroeconomic conditions—specifically, the worldwide recession and a roughly 40% decline in the value of the South African rand against the U.S. dollar that took place last September and October—would almost certainly have worked to the advantage of South Africa’s largest producers in a market that is now actively seeking out less-expensive wines.

Since the last time I reviewed these wines in depth (Issue 131), South African wine in the U.S. has become essentially a tale of two markets. Importers who have track records for marketing their wines without relying on WOSA support continue to do well with South African wines. These companies have frequently benefitted from an economic environment in which retailers, consumers and restaurants are looking for new and interesting wines in the $25-and-under category, and they are actively bringing in new vintages from their suppliers as their previous vintages sell through.

At the other extreme, many less experienced or simply less effective importers have struggled to sell their stock and in many cases are still working through old vintages. Some have not brought in new vintages; others report that their South African suppliers are also sitting on old inventory and have been slow to make new vintages available for export. This winter I was surprised to discover that several U.S. importers were still offering wines I reviewed two years ago, and many others have moved ahead by one vintage, not two. Or they are cherry-picking wines from their suppliers more assiduously. A few producers have left their U.S. importers in the belief that they could do better elsewhere—a strategy that has generally not been successful at a time when relatively few importers are looking for new suppliers.

A couple of key importers of South African wines have recently exited the wine business altogether, leaving their suppliers—some of them among South Africa’s top wineries—scrambling to find new representation in the U.S. market. At the moment, such wineries as De Wetshof, Morgenster, Tokara and Waterford are seeking American importers, even if their past vintages can still be found in this market.

These industry developments are particularly unfortunate, as the quality of South Africa’s best wines is higher than ever before. My extensive tastings in recent months reminded me, once again, of the excitement that can be found in this category—even if I didn’t have the added pleasure this year of touring the beautiful Cape wine region, as I did in 2006, 2004 and 2002. The best of these wines will satisfy even the most inveterate fans of European wines—and at far gentler cost. South Africa offers great bargains at virtually every price point, and fewer exorbitantly priced icon wines than, say, Argentina or Chile.

Some of the most intriguing wines of my tastings were South Africa’s whites—especially sauvignon blanc, but also chardonnay, chenin blanc and some Bordeaux and Rhône blends. The casual consumer probably thinks of South Africa’s Western Cape as a very warm, Mediterranean region, but there are plenty of cooler microclimates, and emerging appellations such as Elgin, Durbanville and Robertson are turning out vibrant white wines with real concentration and character. The Cape wine region strikes me as the third best choice for sauvignon blanc behind the Loire Valley and New Zealand, and I am tempted to say that South Africa’s best sauvignons have more personality than those from New Zealand. Meanwhile, chenin blanc, which has a long history in South Africa but had been declining in production in recent years, has been partly resuscitated through the efforts of chenin specialists like Ken Forrester and Bruwer Raats, who are actively searching out old chenin vines and paying a premium for their fruit to prevent vineyard owners from replacing these vines with other varieties.

Recent vintages: Two thousand eight generally produced elegantly styled wines with moderate alcohol levels, from a growing season that was wetter and cooler than normal, and a late harvest. The 2007 season also featured rather cool early summer weather with some rain, and was marked by a heat wave early in the harvest, with cabernet and shiraz benefitting by being picked later in cooler conditions. By all accounts, 2006 was an outstanding white wine vintage, especially for sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, while the reds from the same harvest offer good flesh and balance. Of recent vintages, 2005 was the warmest year, with an early harvest. The red wines tend to be high in alcohol and quite concentrated, but some show an almost roasted quality, while others betray an underripe/overripe character suggesting a ripening process that was too quick. In contrast, 2004 was a cooler growing season that produced more than its share of stylish and ageworthy wines, the best of which still need time in bottle.

The following wines were all tasted in New York in January and February.